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Senate GOP Healthcare Plan – Comparing Two Iowa Counties’ Health Insurance Premiums

The 2017 blizzard continues this summer, not with blowing snow, but with political maneuvering taking place in Washington on ‘healthcare reform.’ For the record, it is really not ‘healthcare’ that is being addressed by the Republicans, but a ‘health insurance’ makeover – specifically for non-employer coverage purchased by individuals and Medicaid (for low-income Americans).

Real ‘healthcare’ reform would aggressively attack the root causes that make insurance grossly expensive. Instead, the political insanity continues by focusing on the symptoms of the core problems – the exorbitant health insurance premiums we pay. In lieu of reducing the enormous waste built into American healthcare (waste that is an unnecessary cost to many of us but an entitled revenue to entrenched players in the healthcare arena) we continue to confront the never-ending battle downstream of “who should pay and how much?” This problem will continue to persist because of the unwillingness to confront the brutal facts about waste. Einstein’s definition of insanity fits this issue remarkably well.

But I digress…

After Senate Republicans test-launched their trial balloon on June 22, also known as the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA), we now have a better understanding of the impact it will have on each state regarding insurance premiums, the number of those who will be insured and uninsured, and, to a lesser extent, the financial tension on state budgets. Additionally, insurance companies, health providers and other stakeholders have watched with bated breath on how their business world will be impacted by political alterations to health coverage.

After scoring the BCRA, the most notable news coming from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report was the projection that 22 million people would lose health insurance by 2026, in addition to millions more seeing increased out-of-pocket costs. (The Urban Institute projects that Iowa will have 232,000 more uninsured by 2022.) The national increase in the number of uninsured equates to the combined populations of Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, West Virginia, Idaho, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, North Dakota, Arkansas, Vermont, Wyoming and the District of Columbia. Given the recent backlash to the CBO score, Senate Republicans have delayed their vote on this legislation until sometime after the holiday break.

A new Kaiser Family Foundation map compares county-level projections of premiums and tax credits for marketplace enrollees under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2020 with estimates for the BCRA. Both the ACA and BCRA include tax credits that factor in family income, local cost of insurance and age. Eligible enrollees pay a certain percentage of income towards the cost of a benchmark plan, while tax credits cover the remainder of the premium. Further assumptions of the map are explained in the Kaiser link above.

Using the Kaiser map, the following slides suggest that coverage losses would be borne disproportionately by people with low-and-moderate incomes and by older people who purchase their own coverage – prior to becoming eligible for Medicare.

As an example, under the ACA, a 60-year-old enrolled in a silver-level marketplace plan in Polk County with an income of $20,000 has an average premium of $8,600. His tax credit covers all but $950 of his costs. Under the BCRA, the premium for this same person would be almost $3,000 higher than it is under the ACA. And, even after receiving the tax credit, he would be paying $2,340 – an increase of 246 percent over the ACA plan. If he lived in Appanoose County, he would be paying $3,520 more under the BCRA plan versus the ACA plan – an increase of 371 percent.

Below are two other summaries of how people compare based on age (27, 40 and 60), income ($40,000 vs $60,000) and location (Polk and Appanoose counties). Generally speaking, the comparisons suggest that as income increases, the younger people will pay less premium under the BCRA when compared to being enrolled in the ACA. Older enrollees, especially those in higher-cost counties, will pay more under the BCRA plan.

Below is the comparison for individuals earning $40,000.

Below is the comparison for individuals earning $60,000.

As the summer continues to heat up, so too will the blizzard of activity toward fixing the symptoms of a much bigger problem.

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The Cost of Having Healthcare Choices

Throughout our lives, each of us must make choices between unpleasant options. For example, our backyard deck is due for a major overhaul since many boards have rotted.  Should we hire a reputable carpenter to replace our deck, which can be very expensive? Or, should I perform the work myself, which may take longer and not look as great? Given my lack of carpentry experience, neither choice is desirable, yet a new deck must be built.

In healthcare, given the paucity of price and outcomes information, we frequently face unpleasant options between the providers (physicians and hospitals) we use and the health plan coverages available for purchase.  Both provide uneasy choices that test our abilities to become full-fledged ‘consumers.’

To become knowledgeable consumers, Americans want to have numerous options available before making a purchase. This is the nature of a market-based economy that allows transparency to keep vendors honest and accountable for their products and services. In a functional marketplace that allows for cost and quality transparency information, sellers are nudged to provide the best possible ‘product’ at the most competitive cost – a winning recipe for delivering ‘high value.’

Cost of Healthcare

According to a recent article, “Healthcare Costs are Bankrupting Us,” by H. Gilbert Welch and Elliott Fisher, among the 54 prescription drugs commonly-used by Americans age 65+, Medicare pays “nearly twice as much per dose as do the government systems in Canada, England and Norway.” Open heart surgery costs 70 percent more than the next highest country, while an appendectomy is over two times more. We pay five times as much in our hospitals than other developed countries. Why? According to the authors, we have a complicated insurance system that requires “an army of billing clerks – employed by hospitals and physicians on one side and private insurance companies on the other.” Because of this, U.S. employer-sponsored health costs continue to outpace other developed countries.

Similarly, another article written by Elisabeth Rosenthal, MD, “Those Indecipherable Medical Bills? They’re One Reason Health Care Costs So Much,” paints the picture of a costly “coding war” between healthcare providers who hire legions of consultants to find ways to “upcode” procedures in medical bills. Not to be outdone, insurers hire their own coding consultants to protect their interests. Meanwhile, the patient gets lost in the complicated claims process – another reason why prices are not transparent to the public.

Cost of Health Insurance

As we all know, rising health insurance premiums have eaten into take-home pay over the years. In Iowa, the 2016 premium for family health coverage was $15,743, which is 186 percent higher than the family premium in 1999 ($5,508). This family premium is 28 percent of the Iowa household income (adjusted for inflation). In the next 10 years, using the average five-year premium growth rate in Iowa (7.7 percent), the family premium would climb to $33,056 – growing to 52 percent of the household income (assuming a 1.5 percent annual increase).

About two-thirds of the Iowa family premium is paid by the employer. Because of high-premium growth over the past decades, incomes of workers are suppressed. After paying for health premiums, take-home money is then used to pay for escalating health-plan deductibles, copayments and coinsurance. This financial tension contributes to personal bankruptcy and emotional stress – not to mention impairing the overall health and well-being of the workforce – a primary purpose for employers offering health coverage.

The Premium Dollar

In March, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), a national association of health insurers, released a simple chart showing where the premium dollar has been spent during 2014. This chart is based on national data for insured patients under age 65 for commercial and nonprofit health insurance companies. The breakdown of the premium dollar is as follows:

  • Prescription Drugs – 22.1 cents
  • Physician Services – 22.0 cents
  • Outpatient Services – 19.8 cents
  • Inpatient Services – 15.8 cents
  • Operating Costs – 17.8 cents
  • Net Margin – 2.7 cents

Aside from Medicare and Medicaid, which have lower operating costs compared to private (commercial) insurance, almost 80 cents of the premium dollar for private plans is used for medical expenses, while the remaining 20 cents flows to operating costs and net margin. The operating costs for private plans in the U.S. are about twice as high as the overhead costs in other less-complex healthcare systems around the world.

Medical Loss Ratio Status?

Prior to the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, many insurers who sold individual health policies admitted that between 55 – 65 cents of the premium dollar was spent on medical expenses, and the remaining amount was retained by the carrier. The ACA established the “medical loss ratio (MLR),” so that at least 85 percent was spent for medical services by large insurers and at least 80 percent was spent by smaller insurers. Of note, should the ACA be repealed, replaced or repaired, whether the MLR remains intact or not is yet another issue to be addressed.

When it comes to health insurance, Americans ‘appear’ to be willing to pay for the privilege of having choices among health insurance carriers and the multitude of plans offered by each carrier. But will having these choices really provide the added ‘value’ in the care we seek? In some cases, thanks largely to limited provider networks, we may (unknowingly) give up the freedom to choose among healthcare providers, such as physicians, hospitals and others. Will this undermine the competition we wish to have among our market providers?

As I ponder the unpleasant choices we have in healthcare, I must also focus on the backyard deck that awaits my attention.

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Diving into the High-Risk Pool

R-I-S-K is a four-letter word that we experience in our daily lives with nearly every decision we make – whether it be driving a vehicle, eating unhealthy food, using tobacco products or boarding an airplane. Often, we don’t even think of these activities as being linked to safety or well-being risks.

High-Risk Pools

One key element to repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is also related to risk – covering people with pre-existing medical conditions. In the days, weeks and months ahead, chances are you will be learning more about high-risk pools and how they can help mitigate the impact of high-need, high-cost individuals enrolled in the non-group health insurance market. High-risk pools are typically created by state legislatures with regulatory oversight by state insurance departments. They provide a safety net for the “medically uninsurable” population who have been denied health insurance coverage due to a pre-existing health condition.

The recently-passed Republican House bill known as the American Health Care Act (AHCA), was designed to dismantle the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and shift power to states to set important health insurance rules. One contentious provision of the bill allows for states to obtain a waiver to let insurers return to their pre-ACA practice of charging more to customers with pre-existing medical problems.

It is important to note that population healthcare is highly concentrated. In the U.S., the healthiest 50 percent of the population accounts for less than three percent of total health costs, while the sickest 10 percent account for about two-thirds of population health spending.

In December 2016, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that 27 percent of adult Americans under age 65 have health problems that would likely make them uninsurable in an individual market lacking the ACA’s protection. Many of these individuals have access to employer-sponsored plans (or Medicaid) that provide protection to pre-existing conditions. However, for those who don’t have access to these plans, finding coverage at an affordable cost is similar to finding a unicorn in a reputable zoo.

Avalere recently projected that 2.2 million enrollees in the individual market today have some form of pre-existing condition. The AHCA allocated $23 billion ($15 billion over nine years and $8 billion over five years) to assist individuals with pre-existing conditions through high-risk pools. Avalere projects this amount will only cover about 110,000 individuals with pre-existing conditions, about five percent of those eligible.

The AHCA created another $100 billion over the next nine years, beginning in 2019, for the Patient and State Stability Fund – a program designed to provide flexibility to states to ensure stability within the insurance markets. This amount attempts to entice insurance plans to participate and offer lower premiums. However, according to Avalere, if this money was allocated to exclusively cover individuals with pre-existing conditions, only 600,000 individuals would be covered (27 percent of the 2.2 million enrollees with health problems). Most high-risk pools around the country have historically suffered financial hardships because the funding is often insufficient or poorly operated.

Before the ACA became law in 2010, high-risk pools existed in 35 states, and enrollees paid 150% to 200% above the standard non-group premiums. Additionally, according to Kaiser, 33 states with these pools included lifetime limits that capped the exposure of insurance carriers, with most limits in the $1 million to $2 million range. To ensure financial ‘integrity,’ many states also imposed waiting periods in these programs before insurance would cover medical claims considered to be pre-existing.

The Republicans in the U.S. Senate are now center-stage in this healthcare reform spectacle, making preparations to craft their own solution to repeal, replace or repair the ACA. They, too, will need to confront the high-risk component that is inherent in the insurance market. With this high-risk issue, will we find the high-reward results desired by many?

This discussion will continue to play out in the next weeks and months ahead…

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